What graduates really want from jobs

A lot of people talk on behalf of graduates, usually reeling off survey statistics to reveal what they really want from their first significant jobs and how that’s different from previous generations. Four in five consider corporate purpose highly important to their choice of employer, for example, while 25% plan to run a company of their own.

It’s a little too easy for graduates’ own voices to get lost in all this commentary, so I decided to do some qualitative research, asking a panel of recent uni leavers about what matters to them.

Some are newly in employment, others are still looking, but their views suggest a more nuanced picture of graduates’ priorities, and how well they feel these are currently being addressed – all of which talent-hungry employers would do well to consider.

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Here are five key takeaways:

1. They want to come to the office

Contrary to reports of remote working being a welcome new normal for digital natives, my interviewees were desperate to get into the office. Having completed an arduous online degree course over the last two years, Gemma, looking for work in accountancy, told me “it is important…to have a good working environment where I can meet people.”

Every interviewee wanted some time in the office, and nearly half preferred being there full-time. Gina, training in marketing, often found home working “mostly unproductive and lonely”, believing that “a lot of early career development comes from interacting with people a little more experienced, and those interactions are much harder to have remotely.”

Some argued that having the option of flexibility in working environments would be nice eventually, but for now, Gemma told me, “it is less desirable for me to work from home considering I can’t afford a nice environment to work in.”

The consensus among these grads was that while employers are increasingly offering flexibility – typically two or three days a week in the office – the distinctly unsocial experience of university life during the Covid-19 pandemic, where face-to-face contact was so restricted, made the opportunity of real-life workplace interaction much more attractive.

2. They want learning and development

All the grads on the panel said on-the-job training was highly appealing, particularly easing the transition from academically rigorous but vocationally non-specific degree courses to the workplace. “Whether they come as part of organised programmes or informal interactions doesn’t matter,” said Harry, interested in entrepreneurship, so long as there was provision for learning within the job, and the graduate was not expected to arrive fully formed.

The actual provision of on-the-job training varies greatly. One interviewee was offered a month of formal training before beginning work properly; another, Lucy, worked at a small political PR  company and “had a lot of one-on-one training from the director”. Graduate schemes with specific, long-term training programmes, she said, are seen as “super competitive” and very difficult to get on to.

3. They want interesting work

While recognising that first jobs tend to demand a certain amount of rote or even dull work, graduates found the promise of mental stimulation highly important.

Creative and intellectual development matters, and not just in the short term. “I don’t want to be doing routine work that could theoretically be automated,” James, interested in consultancy, said, speaking for all those interviewed.

Graduates told me that companies often claim to offer this stimulation, but then fail to provide it. The companies that do give this tend to be smaller in size. This means, according to Sophia, “that I have greater responsibility in the projects I’m involved with – initially quite daunting but I’ve learnt a lot so far!”

4. They want job progression

On the whole, the prospect of advancement at a company was seen as very important. The graduates hoped to take on more responsibility “without much HR process” if they proved themselves effective.

“It is nice to know that there is an ability for you to progress from the outset,” Gemma said, ideally with “a plan [from the company] for what the individual would be expected to achieve and how.”

The only thing more important than formal advancement through the hierarchy may be to be “surrounded by more talented people than me and learning a lot from them”. Should that learning be on offer, “I would be unlikely to be bothered about moving into more senior positions rapidly.”

5. They don’t want to work in the gig economy

What about the stereotype that young employees are keen for shorter contracts, and the opportunity to switch careers and employers at relatively short notice? This appeared to be untrue for my interviewees. Asked about ease of contract escape, they said they were “indifferent”, considering for the most part that long-term contracts were preferable, as these “are better at protecting workers’ rights”.

Meanwhile, termination clauses should be “symmetric for both me and my employer… the same terms should apply to situations of me wanting to leave as them wanting me to leave; neither party should find it easier to separate from the other.”

The bottom line

Learning and development, interesting work, progression, human interaction, job security – these are hardly revolutionary asks for new workers of any generation, even if some employers may be surprised at how little Gen Z seems to want to work from home after two years of pandemic-enforced solitude.

But that doesn’t mean you can take for granted that this is what you’re already delivering. Growth-hungry companies looking to hire the best and brightest young graduates should make a real effort to get to know them and understand their priorities. In a seller’s labour market, where talent trumps all, it’s the only way to stay competitive in the long run.

(Names have been anonymised)

By David Alexander – a recent graduate and freelance journalist for the Guardian, the Yorkshire Evening Post and elsewhere